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Photo Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

How can the Leafs get the most out of Nick Robertson?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Leafs have a problem at left wing.

This was the story running rampant last summer and early in the 2021-22 season following the departure of Zach Hyman and the failed Nick Ritchie experiment. Michael Bunting was a revelation once he finally carved out his spot but here we are again, discussing the same issue one line lower in the forward group.

Alex Kerfoot, despite his versatility in the lineup, is going to be traded. The salary cap crunch demands a sacrifice that will leave a hole in the lineup in the form of a player who can play top-6 minutes, but isn’t necessarily the best choice to play alongside John Tavares and William Nylander. And in the wake of that impending loss, the Leafs need someone who can step in and fill that position.

That someone could be Nick Robertson.

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The soon-to-be 21 year old forward was the Leafs’ second-round draft pick in 2019 and immediately had a breakout season in his final OHL year with 55 goals and 86 points in 46 games. Since turning pro and joining the Leafs in the 2020 playoff bubble, (dressing in four of the five games,) Robertson has only played in 65 total regular season games across the NHL and AHL (16 NHL, 49 AHL) due to several injuries. Despite that lack of playing time, Robertson has taken steps to improve his overall game (he was a point-per-game player with the Marlies last season) and seems poised to take the next step this upcoming season.

In my opinion, Robertson’s injuries and lack of presence in the NHL, (he dressed for 10 games with the Leafs last year, but mostly in a fourth-line role, and like most-fourth-liners, was completely forgotten about,) have resulted in him becoming a target in some corners of the Leafs fandom. He’s been listed in numerous ridiculous trade proposals as a throw-in by some, called a bust by others, or compared to other AHL-level players who “don’t have what it takes to play in the show.”

What these people are not realizing is that prospects need to be put into a position to succeed. None of Matthews, Nylander, or Marner were top-line players their first years in the league, they were eased in on the second and third lines and played with other skilled players. That’s the approach Sheldon Keefe needs to take with Nick Robertson: put him with skilled players and watch the goals pile up, because, like his brother Jason, (of the Dallas Stars,) the kid already has a lethal shot.

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The Marlies’ lineup changed a lot throughout last season, it was rare for the team to run the exact same roster game-to-game. Among the usual suspects in the team’s top-6, Robertson often played with one of Alex Steeves or Josh Ho-Sang on the opposite wing, and for a large stretch of the year, had his former Peterborough Petes teammate Semyon Der-Arguchintsev centering his line. And in his limited appearances in the NHL last year, he picked up two points playing alongside of none other than John Tavares and William Nylander.

It’s pretty much as simple as that, skilled players work best with skilled players, and not fourth-line grinders. If Robertson is to be an NHL-regular for the Maple Leafs, he needs an opportunity to earn a top-6 spot and some power-play time to best put his talents to use.

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